‘Township’ is a planet for aliens
Dudumalingani Mqombothi | April 22nd, 2014


A few days ago, Bizcommmunity, an online platform for writings about, amongst other things, content about media, PR and advertising in South Africa (though you wouldn’t say by the 1996-era site design) published an article riddled with stereotypes. “The township is no longer a foreign land far away and its story is no longer one of the haves and have-nots,” writes one Danette Breitenbach. But the narrative Ms Breitenbach weaves here is not hers alone.

Her opening sentence is an odd one: it attempts to debunk stereotypes about what she calls ‘the township’, as opposed to townships in plural form and not as one thing and yet she also propagates the stereotype. The latter part of that sentence is not at all incorrect, given of course that one is referring to townships in the sense of topography and not economy. Townships were designed as such that they are far away from cities and suburbs where white people lived during the Apartheid years. The other problematic issue here is the expression ‘The Township’. She quantifies a million people into a single place, as if, the township is a planet that only has one person. South Africa has many townships; yes they have similarities, a fact true for cities and suburbs, yet people talk of cities and suburbs and not the city or the suburb when referring to them.

The article was about findings by a company called Ask Afrika, which conducted research to understand township consumers. ‘Township consumers’ is another problematic wording. Many advertising agencies have held the view that there is one consumer living in townships, that people in the townships have the same buying habits. Findings by Ask Africa enlighten the advertising industry that there is actually no such thing. To conduct research to come to the realization that townships are as dynamic as cities and suburbs is redundant. When the Group Areas of 1950 became effective and forced removal became priority of the Apartheid government, the very people that were being moved were dynamic; to then investigate if they are dynamic in 2014 is ridiculous.

To begin with the thinking that townships need investigating to be understood is problematic.

“Township consumers are savvy in a different way in that when making a purchase, they look from a cultural perspective at what they buy,” writes Danette. WTF? She has clearly never lived in a township.

It is this systematic pigeon-holing of an entire community that is problematic.

But of course, the people who know that there is not one township and not one giant citizen roaming around there, cannot spend their time educating ignorant people like Danette and Ask Africa’s commercial director, Paida Mugudubi. Narratives about townships that only exist to correct wrongs that persist because of ignorance and nothing else are themselves doing townships a disservice. We should tell our own stories, our complexities instead.

There are places in townships that are interested in attracting people outside of townships. Branding themselves as ‘giving you the township experience’. But they always appear to miss the point. They always conform to the discomforts of the outsiders. The Department of Coffee in Khayelitsha is a perfect example of this. One of their monthly events in association with Metrorail is aimed at attracting outsiders to go to Khayelitsha and experience it. They are transported in special metrorail trains and not the commuter trains that people from Khayelitsha use. They also get police to guard and escort the visitors. How is this promoting Khayelitsha? It does not, being the short answer.

The solution is simple and perhaps, radical; it’s imbedded in Pharaohe Monch’s song “Simon says”, it is ‘get the fuck out”: “Get the fuck out” of the townships if you only visit them to confirm your prejudices and not to experience them the way they are, the way they have always been, dynamic and complex.

* Image Credit: Still from “District 9″

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Dudumalingani is a writer, filmmaker and photographer from the Zikhovane village in the former Transkei and now resides in Cape Town. He writes both fiction and non-fiction.

4 thoughts on “‘Township’ is a planet for aliens

  1. Your assertions about the BizCommunity article: totally on point.

    Your ones about the DoC: not so much.

    When it was launched, there was a police presence. But please don’t lie to the masses and make as if there’s always a constant ‘special train’ and constant police escort to DoC. Your inaccuracies are doing the residents of Khayelitsha a huge disservice. Try visiting the place you are going to write about more than once – and hopefully that won’t just be at its launch.

  2. Thanks for the compliment on the article but it also appears to me that you have not read the article at all, at least not for what it is. It is clearly stated in the article that ‘One of their monthly events in association with Metrorail…They are transported in special metrorail trains and not the commuter trains that people from Khayelitsha use’ and it goes on. This cannot be desouted as there poster that went up at the train station last year with prices and times for these special trains. How you then from this deduced ‘make as if there’s always a constant ‘special train’ and constant police escort to DOC’ is unclear to me. And also your accusation that I have only ever visited DOC once is incorrect. In 2013, I lived two minutes away from DOC and frequented it.

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